International press freedom organisations sent an open letter to the Council of Europe asking Europe’s leaders to safeguard the free flow of information as governments around the world are taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic to implement draconian measures.
The letter was signed by the 10 international organisations that form part of the Council of Europe platform for the protection of journalism and safety of journalists where they expressed their grave concern about the danger of governments using the pandemic to punish independent and critical media.
They also called on the CoE to introduce restrictions on the access and scrutiny by media to government decisions and actions.
The letter highlighted the recent move taken by the Hungarian parliament to push through a bill that will allow journalists to be jailed for up to five years for fake news. The organisations requested the Venice Commission to carry out a full legal review of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s emergency law.
“Unfortunately, several governments across Europe are already using the pandemic to claim extraordinary powers that can undermine democratic institutions, including the free press”, they said.
We jointly wrote to @coe Secretary General/Committee of Ministers today to call for determined actions to protect free flow of information to tackle #COVID19 – find the letter here (@CoEMediaFreedom): https://t.co/nN36eCuuy7
— ECPMF (@ECPMF) March 31, 2020
While welcoming the letter sent by the Council to Orban, the organisations said that there was the risk that some member states will derogate from obligations under the European Court of Human Rights.
“While we recognise the potential benefits in terms of combating the spread of the virus, the use of surveillance must have proper oversight and be clearly limited to tackling the pandemic. Unchecked surveillance endangers privacy and data rights and journalists’ ability to protect sources,” the letter said.
It was also liable to inhibit journalists’ freedom to report and comment on matters of public interest in ways that cause self-censorship and undermined media freedom and plurality, it added.
The letter also referred to restrictions of media access to government officials, medical experts and those in the frontline of the pandemic. Countries like Slovenia and Czech Republic have recently announced that no more press conferences on the pandemic will be held.
Another concern that was raised was the journalists’ safety in terms of exposure to the virus together with assaults on members of the media while reporting on the pandemic. They called on the CoE to urge member states to ensure the protection of media freedom, which should be made a political priority, especially during this time.
Oppression on the free press at the time of the corovid-19 pandemic stretches way beyond Europe. Journalists in countries like Venezuela, India and Brazil are going through a hard time as they attempt to report on the latest developments of the virus.
The letter was signed by ARTICLE 19, Association of European Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, Index on Censorship, International Federation of Journalists, International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders.